The Perilous Ream Online Part 8

Book One: The Endless Road

Chapter Eight

Will and his companions left Fable by a gate in the south wall, crossed the bridge over the stream, and took a narrow winding path that led up to the road. The story they had prepared was a simple one, that they were on a journey to visit friends in other parts, not an uncommon thing among people in the Bourne. They had all dressed in inconspicuous garments of green and brown. Will carried his own clothes in his pack. He hadn’t wanted to leave them behind, as they were the only link he felt he had left with home.

 

Finn had a sword at his side, and on his back he carried a short bow of pale wood and a quiver of snowy-feathered arrows. Pendrake walked with a long, gently curved staff of polished wood and a leather bag slung over one shoulder. He carried no weapon that Will could see. For Will, Finn had brought a long knife that was much like Rowen’s.

 

The knife felt strange on Will’s hip. He pulled it from its leather sheath once before they left Appleyard. It was heavier in his hand than he expected, and had no markings. The steel hilt was wrapped in dark leather, and the blade, burnished to a mirror-smooth lustre, tapered to an alarmingly sharp point. He tried to imagine stabbing someone with it, and quickly slipped it back into its sheath.

 

When they reached the road, Shade walked at Will’s side but often trotted ahead eagerly or plunged into the roadside greenery nose first. Will watched him, both amused and troubled by this fierce yet somehow innocent creature, and the way he had come into his life.

 

“Shade seems glad to be on the road,” Rowen observed.

 

“Fable was his first city, I suspect,” Pendrake said. “We’re finally in a world that he knows.”

 

“This is the world,” the wolf growled over his shoulder.

         

They headed southwest toward the crossroads of the Bourne. As they walked the morning chill from their limbs, the sun rose behind a veil of mist. They walked through the quiet valley at an easy pace, past the farms and outlying houses. The same small dog Will had seen the night he arrived darted out of its gate barking, took one look at Shade and sped back the way it had come. There were fewer people on the road than there had been before, and Will wondered whether this was a good sign or not. He thought of asking Finn or the toymaker, but then he decided he didn’t want to risk any more bad news.

 

“There,” Rowen said, taking Will out of his thoughts. She was pointing to a wooded rise. “That’s where we came out of the Wood.”

 

Will looked at the faint track winding into the trees, and he wondered where Moth and Morrigan were now.

 

Further along they descended into a dell shaded by drooping willow trees, and crossed a wooden bridge over a slow-moving stream. On the far side of the dell they came out into dazzling sunshine. It promised to be a warm day. Birdsong soon filled the air. The roadsides were bright with summer flowers, and in the distance fields of ripening wheat and corn rippled in the morning breeze. The world seemed so peaceful that Will could not prevent a surge of hope from rising in him. He could almost believe that whoever was after him had gone far away, or forgotten him. Or that it had all been a mistake, the stories of darkness and evil were just that, only stories, and no one was hunting for him after all.

 

When the sun was well up in the sky they reached a slight rise, shaded by a ring of tall elms, where roads from five directions met. In addition to the road from Fable, here the wide stone highroad of the Bourne ran north and south, and crossed the narrower but well-tended east-west way.         

 

“Here is where you make your first choice, Will,” Pendrake said.

 

Will nodded. He was annoyed but hoped it didn’t show. Why did it have to be up to him? He had no clue what he was doing or where he was going. Pendrake knew so much more than he did about this world. And he was the one who had insisted that Will go on this journey in the first place.

 

Will sighed and looked around, thinking over what he had learned from studying the toymaker’s maps. He knew that directly south on the high road lay the town of Goodfare, a day’s walk distant. To the east were Stook and Owlet, two tiny villages less than a mile away, the pale woodsmoke of their chimneys visible above the trees. Other larger towns lay that way, too, and beyond them, the River Arrow and the eastern borderlands. To the north the highroad wound up through a range of hills called the Brades and so to the citadel of Annen Bawn upon the Bourne’s stony northern marches. The road west led to several farming villages and other branching ways, then ended at the vast forest that had been spoken of with unease and concern the night before.

 

Yet he was here now, without the map, and in every direction he saw only trees, and flowering hedges, and green fields. There was no way to tell the roads apart, nothing to hint at what dangers each might have in store. He went still and waited for something inside to speak to him, but nothing came, or at least nothing certain. One moment a certain road seemed to beckon him, but the next moment it was another. While he stood and waited for some kind of revelation, and wondered how he would know if it was one, a wagon pulled by two stocky horses and loaded with barrels came up slowly from the south, then at the crossroads turned onto the road to Fable. The thickset man driving the wagon glowered at them as he passed.

 

“Quests,” they heard him mutter. “Why can’t folk just stay at home.”  

 

Will began to wonder the same thing. He turned in a circle, still undecided. Rowen sat down by the wayside, on a large flat stone that looked as if it had been carved as a seat for just that purpose. It occurred to Will that many travellers over the years must have sat here, like him, with a choice to make. Finn Madoc stood nearby, gazing into the distance in each direction in turn. Shade went sniffing down one of the roads, seemingly unconcerned about the whole affair. Will avoided looking at the toymaker. Not for the first time he was sure the old man’s faith in him was mistaken.

 

Then he looked again at Shade, who was still nosing his way along one of the roads. Will called his name, and the wolf halted and came loping back.

 

“Don’t tell me that is it already,” he grumbled. “You never get very far in your travels, Will Lightfoot.”

 

In spite of himself, Will smiled. Then he had a thought.

 

“Shade will decide,” he said.

 

Rowen grinned and stood up. Finn shot a dubious glance at Pendrake, who merely nodded and said, “Very well.”

 

“You wish me to choose our road?” the wolf said, cocking his head to one side.

 

Will nodded, wondering what on earth he was doing.

 

“Then I will choose it,” Shade said. Without hesitation he trotted back the way he had just come, stopping once to look over his shoulder with a glare of annoyance that the others had not yet followed him.

 

“This way,” he called. “This is the way back to the lands I know.”

 

Shouldering their packs, the others walked along after him without speaking, and Will wondered if he had just made a terrible mistake. Shade had chosen the western road that led to the forest of Oldark.

 

 

******

 

 

For the rest of that day they followed the road through the farmlands in the west of the Bourne. They met many other travellers, most of whom were country folk going about their business. Almost all of these were heading in the direction that Will and his companions had come from, toward Fable. Some looked friendly, and smiled or exchanged a greeting, while others eyed them suspiciously, especially when they saw the wolf. Finn said that the nearer one came to the forest, the more wary folk were of strangers.

 

In the afternoon they halted at a branching where a slender track angled away northwest from the main road. Without hesitation Shade chose the narrower road. This led them for a while between fields of green barley and corn that in places rose over their heads. Then the countryside grew more rolling, and the road wound down through a pastureland dotted with clumps of trees, where cows grazed. Here and there steep hillocks with sides of naked rock jutted out of the softly rolling landscape. 

 

As evening was falling they came out of the pastures. The road climbed between two steep hillsides and then levelled off. Ahead of them in the distance Will could see a few lights twinkling in the gloom.

 

“That would be the village of Hare’s Hill,” Finn said. “One of our riders passed this way yesterday, and reported all was quiet. There is an inn where we could sleep, and the folk are trustworthy.”

 

“But Lord Caliburn was right, we make a strange company,” Pendrake said, eyeing the wolf. “The news of our stopping there would be told to anyone else who came this way.”

 

“I know a place where we can shelter,” Shade said. “It’s not far.”

 

The others consented and the wolf led them away from the road, through a grove of stunted, thorny trees. The ground rose steadily and soon they found themselves at the foot of a grassy hillock. Shade led them around to the far side, and there they came to a small hollow ringed by three huge jagged stones that leaned together as though they were holding a secret conference.

 

“This will make a fine campsite,” said Finn, looking around approvingly. “It’s out of the wind, and gives some concealment. I think we can risk a fire.”

 

Rowen and her grandfather had been gathering dry sticks as they travelled, and now they set about making a fire, while Finn went off to scout the surrounding area.

 

As soon as he stopped walking and sat down heavily, Will’s feet began to throb and ache even worse than they had all day. He tugged off his boots, certain that he had never walked so much in a single day. Rowen was digging in her pack and looked tired, too, and even Shade was content to sit quietly nearby. The toymaker wandered off a short distance, and seemed to be studying one of the stones.

 

Will rubbed his sore feet.

 

“Are you all right?” Rowen asked. Will turned in surprise. He hadn’t seen her watching him.

 

“I’m fine,” he said quickly. “It was a lot of walking.”

 

“Today wasn’t too bad,” Rowen replied. “Once we leave the Bourne there won’t be any nice smooth roads like this.”

 

Will gaped at her.

 

“If we don’t know where we’re going,” he said, “why are we hurrying?”

 

“We weren’t hurrying. I guess people don’t walk much where you come from.”

 

Will said nothing. He had to admit it was true. At home, he rarely walked anywhere if he could avoid it.

 

“Have you met others like me?” he asked finally. “People that your grandfather has helped?”

 

“The last I know of was my father. He came here when he was a young man, from Elsewhere. He was determined to find his own way home. Until he met my mother.” Rowen smiled. “Grandfather says he was a lot like me.”

 

“Have you ever been there? To where your father came from, I mean.”

 

Rowen shook her head.

 

“I’d like to see the Untold. At least I think I would. But it’s not easy. And Grandfather says that once you’ve gone there, it’s even harder to find your way back.”

 

An owl hooted nearby, an eerie sound that made Will aware of the unknown countryside surrounding them. He thought of the warmth and comfort of Pendrake’s house.

 

“What happened to them?” he asked. “Your mother and father.”

 

At first Rowen did not answer. She fed a handful of dry twigs into the fire, and then at last she spoke.

 

“When I was very young, we lived in the Brades, north of Fable. Our farm was called Blue Hill. One winter a large band of mordog came out of the north, looting and burning. Such a thing had not happened for many years.”

 

“What are mordog?”

 

“A breed of Nightbane. Wicked things bred by dark powers long ago. There are many kinds. Goblins. Creech. Yagsha. Those ones suck your blood. Then there’s hogmen. They walk like men but they have pigs’ faces. They eat people, but luckily they aren’t very clever. Mordog are the worst. They come without warning, take what they want by force, and vanish.”

 

“That’s what happened to you?”

 

Rowen nodded.

 

“A raiding party attacked our farm one evening. We had no warning. My grandfather came the next day with riders of the Errantry, but it was too late for my mother and father. Moth and Morrigan found me hiding in the woods and brought me to Grandfather. I don’t remember anything from before that day. I don’t remember what my parents looked like, or the sound of their voices.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Will said. He thought about his mother. He wanted to tell Rowen about her, but he held back. He knew he wasn’t ready to speak about that.

 

Rowen snapped a larger stick in two and tossed it on the flames.

 

“I wasn’t the only one who lost their family,” she said stiffly. “Many farms were burned. Finn’s older brother Corr set out with a band of riders in pursuit of the mordog, but neither he nor any of his companions ever returned. No one knows what happened to them.”

 

Before Will could reply, Finn returned. The toymaker joined him at the lip of the hollow and they stood together, talking in low voices. Will wondered if what Rowen had told him about the young man was the reason for his aloofness. He glanced at her, and saw that she was gazing at Finn intently. He remembered how she had spoken about him earlier, and it came to Will how much she looked up to Finn. She wanted to be like him some day, of course. A member of the Errantry, going on adventures. And maybe, Will wondered, she felt more for him than that.

 

“Has he … Finn I mean … been in a lot of battles?” Will asked her.

 

“A few, maybe,” Rowen said. “I don’t really know. The riders don’t boast about what they do. It’s part of the code. But in Fable stories get around, of course. They say Finn fought a giant unthunk in the Screaming Wastes and drove it off single-handedly.”

 

Will remembered the somewhat different story Finn had told Lord Caliburn. He didn’t know what a giant unthunk was, and at the moment he didn’t care to find out. The only thing that bothered him was the admiration in Rowen’s voice as she spoke about Finn Madoc.

 

Pendrake finally sat down near the fire, and after a while Finn joined them. As the firelight illuminated the faces of the three towering stones, Will looked at them more closely. He stood and examined the stone nearest to him. There were faint curving lines carved upon the dull grey surface, worn almost invisible by age.

 

“What are these markings?” he asked Pendrake.

 

“Words,” the toymaker said. “In an ancient language. They tell the story of a boy named Conal the Clever, the hero of the Riverfolk. They lived in this land long before there was a country called the Bourne. The carvings tell how he outwitted an ogre and how the stones got here.”

 

“Tell us the story, Grandfather,” Rowen said eagerly.

 

 

It happened once, the Loremaster told them, that a groog took up residence in the forest near the home of the Riverfolk. Now a groog is a large, nasty kind of ogre with metal fangs of varying size and jaggedness, and huge arms that hang down to its scaly feet. A groog is always hungry, and moves surprisingly fast for something that looks like a mountain with teeth. This particular groog began to make off with sheep and chickens from the Riverfolk, and even a few dogs went missing. Ogres were also known to steal children, too, preferably plump ones.

 

Conal decided he had to deal with this matter before sheep-stealing led to something worse. So he set off one morning in search of the groog. He had to admit to himself that he was a little bit afraid, but as he walked through the forest he told himself a story about one of his own adventures, a story of peril and last-minute escape, and that cheered him up somewhat, since the story was mostly true.

 

Conal had little trouble finding the groog’s lair. The biggest clue was the stench. It led him to a cave in a hillside, comfortably furnished with armchairs and lamps and bookshelves and a bearskin rug (no, on second glance it was a whole bear, squashed flat), and also less tastefully strewn with bones and maggot-ridden animal carcasses. The smell of blood and rot was so overpowering that Conal didn’t notice the groog sneaking up on him from behind. Before the boy could escape, the evil creature seized him in his claws.

 

“Lucky day,” the groog chortled, his breath almost enough to finish the boy off right then and there. “Caught Conal of Riverfolk I have. Eat him I will. Yum yum.”

 

“Of course you’ve caught me,” Conal said, thinking quickly. “I came here on purpose, looking for you. I told everyone in the village that you and I would simply have to battle it out. For I have heard that you are the strongest ogre in the whole world. Or am I wrong?”

 

The startled monster hurried to affirm that he was the one that Conal sought. There was, he could personally attest, no ogre stronger. Upon hearing this Conal feigned great pleasure, and presented the groog with a proposal: that the pair of them engage in mortal combat to prove who was the better of the two. “For I am without doubt the cleverest boy in the world, and as I’m sure you know, when you’re the best at something it’s difficult finding opponents worth your time and effort. So why don’t we find out whether my wits are any match for your might.”

 

Ogres generally cannot resist challenges of this kind, as Conal well knew, and fortunately this groog was no exception. He quickly agreed, a hungry grin spreading across his hideous face.

 

“And the one who does not win,” he chortled, drool oozing down his chin, “will be yummy-yum din-din.”

 

“That’s fine,” Conal told him, “but first you will have to prove that you’re as powerful as everyone claims. Otherwise I’m just wasting my time challenging you.”

 

They went outside and the groog picked up a huge fallen log and lifted it over his head as if it were a twig.

 

“I’ve seen my grandmother fling bigger sticks than that out of her path,” Conal said. The groog growled and hurtled the log into the air. Conal stifled a gulp when he heard the distant crash as the log fell in the forest far away. It occurred to him that this groog might really be the strongest in the world. In which case he was in serious trouble.

 

“I also heard you were the swiftest creature on two legs, though looking at you I find that hard to believe,” Conal said. “Show me how fast you can run to where that stick landed, and back.”

 

“Big dumbskull Conal thinks me,” the groog sneered. “If to fallen log I run, gone he’ll be when back I come.”

 

The boy praised the groog’s talent for near-rhyme and swore that no such trickery was in his mind, but nevertheless the groog picked him up and tucked him under one arm. He then set off at a truly astonishing pace for such a huge, lumbering creature, almost leaping as he bounded through the woods to the log and back to the cave in almost no time at all.

 

“Not bad,” Conal said as the groog set him down, and he swallowed hard, for it was clear to him now that if his plan failed, he was surely doomed. “However, the last groog I met could pull up the biggest stone in the forest by the roots,” he went on. “Now I know that’s asking a lot…”

 

Brushing Conal aside, the groog, still huffing and puffing from his run, wrapped his arms around a huge chunk of rock that had stood nearby, embedded in the earth, since the very first tale was spun. He heaved and grunted and grew purple in the face, and at last the stone came up out of the ground, dangling thick clods of earth.

 

“Excellent,” Conal said. “But don’t set it down just yet, not if you really want to impress me. I’ve seen my baby brother twirl a pebble like that on the tip of his finger.”

 

The groog’s limbs began to shake and his breath started coming in gasps. At last with a groan he tossed the stone aside. It fell with an earthshaking thud, and the groog nearly toppled over with it.

 

Conal shrugged and said, “Very well. If that’s your best, it will have to do.  Let’s not waste any more time. Prepare for battle.”

 

The groog, wheezing and panting from his exertions, hoped to buy some time to catch his breath, and so he gasped out that first it was Conal’s turn to prove that he was indeed the cleverest boy in the world.

 

Conal laughed.

 

“I just did,” he said, and took to his heels.

 

The exhausted groog was too worn out to chase after him. And he knew that the tale of his stupidity would soon be general knowledge. He would be the laughing-stock of the entire ogre brotherhood. At their yearly gatherings his story would be tossed around like a juicy bone for everyone to gnaw at. In his shame and rage he butted his head against the stone and it cracked into three pieces.

 

 

“Then he packed up his belongings,” Pendrake concluded, “and moved far away to another land, where he hoped no one would ever hear of his defeat at the wits of Conal the Clever.”

 

“What happened to the Riverfolk?” Will asked when the old man had finished speaking. “Do they still live around here?”

 

“When Wayfarers from Elsewhere first came to the Bourne, they found no one living here. Only these ancient, faded writings on stone.”

 

He fell silent and wrapped his cloak around himself.

 

“I will take the first watch,” Finn said. He stood and climbed to the rim of the hollow.

 

After the others had bedded down for the night, Will lay awake for a long while, looking up at the stones, looming black and mysterious against the powdery light of the stars. Home seemed further away with every step he took. He thought of what Rowen had told him about her parents. He felt he understood her better now, and he was glad she had come with them on this journey. If she was hopeful about what lay ahead, then maybe he could be, too.

 

 

***

 

Finn was up and had the fire going again and water boiling before Will had even opened his eyes. He crawled out from under his blanket, groggy and shivering, wondering if he had ever gotten out of bed this early before. A faint trace of his dreams remained with him: once again he had glimpsed the clearing of the cloven tree through falling snow. And once again the tall white-haired man in the red robe appeared, and opened his mouth to speak, but the dream ended before Will could hear any words.

 

The dream was quickly forgotten when he sat down to breakfast. Finn had fried up a kind of flatbread he called bannog. When Will had eaten his fill, he licked his lips and said it was delicious.

 

“That’s good to hear, since we’ll likely be eating a lot of it,” Finn said, scraping out the pan. “And by the way, it wasn’t a giant unthunk. Just an ordinary-sized one.”

 

Will reddened. He tore off a hunk of the bread to give to Shade, and then realized that the wolf was not with them.

 

“Have you seen Shade?” Will asked Rowen. She shook her head.

 

“He went off on his own, just before dawn,” Pendrake said, appearing at the rim of the hollow. “I could tell by the way he was pacing that he wished to leave, so I told him I would watch over you until he returned.”

 

“Should we allow him to run off like that?” Finn asked as he packed away his gear. “After all, we don’t really know much about him.”

 

“And he doesn’t know much about us,” Pendrake said.

 

As they were packing their things, Will glimpsed a moving shape above them and looked up eagerly, expecting to see Shade. A man in ragged, patched leather stood at the lip of the hollow. A moment later two other men joined him. All three carried bulging canvas sacks and had hats pulled down low over their brows. Will whispered a warning and everyone looked up.

 

“Morning,” said the first man. “Fine camping spot.”

 

“It is,” the toymaker said. “We’re just leaving now, so you’re welcome to it.”

 

“Indeed we are, since it’s ours.”

 

“We weren’t aware of that. Our apologies. We will be on our way very soon.”

 

The first man set down his bundle and the others did likewise. From his belt he drew a long knife with a jagged blade. The other two slid thick wooden cudgels from their coats. All three began to descend slowly into the hollow.

 

“Apology accepted, greybeard,” the man with the knife said. “However, the fact is you’ve inconvenienced us, and we will require some compensation for that. Kindly hand over all your belongings, then you can be on your way.”

 

Finn stepped forward. His sword, Will saw with alarm, was lying beside his other gear, out of reach. Will looked at Rowen and the toymaker, who made a gesture with his hand that told Will not to move. His heart began to pound and he wished that Shade would come back.

 

“We’re happy to share our breakfast with you,” Finn said, “but we won’t give you our things.”

 

“And how are you going to stop us, boy?” the man with the knife laughed. “Maybe you should get the old fellow to do your fighting for you. Or the girl.”

 

Without warning the three men lunged at Finn. What happened next was over so quickly that Will barely had time to cry out in surprise. Finn dodged the attack of the man with the knife and with a darting thrust of his leg sent him tumbling head over heels. Close behind came the men with the cudgels. Finn had the weapon out of one man’s hand an instant later and brought it down with a crack upon the knuckles of the other, who howled and dropped his own cudgel. Three more lightning-fast blows and all three attackers lay in the grass, groaning.

 

Calmly Finn bent, picked the first man’s knife out of the grass and tucked it into his belt. He broke the cudgels against one of the stones and tossed them on the remains of the fire.

 

“You can have your camping spot back now,” he said. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

 

The three men picked themselves up and hurried off. Will had not moved the whole time. He glanced at Rowen, who stood beside him, and saw that she was looking at Finn with a brightness in her eyes he had never seen before. At that moment, with a pang in his heart, Will understood what she really felt for Finn Madoc, and how foolish he had been to think she might have felt that way about him. He turned away quickly and gathered up his things.

 

“There were reports of thieves in this district,” Finn said matter-of-factly as they left the hollow.

 

“I hope they’ll consider taking up a new trade,” Pendrake said.

 

As they returned to the road Shade trotted up. He seemed to be in high spirits, and came bounding to meet them.

 

“Where have you been?” Will asked, ashamed at the anger in his own voice.

 

“Running,” the wolf said with a wild happiness in his voice. Finn eyed him uneasily, but said nothing more.

 

The road continued much as it had the day before, through farmlands and wooded stretches, but there were fewer travellers, and soon the companions found themselves alone. In the afternoon the road began to roll up and down across a line of steeper hills, and at each crest the eaves of the forest grew closer. From time to time they would pass a road leading north or south, to other inhabited parts of the Bourne. Still Shade headed west, although it was clear that he had little sense of a straight line. As they walked down the middle of the road the wolf’s path wove from one side to the other. He chased after birds, nosed around in stands of tall grass, and once frightened a rabbit out of its concealment in a willow thicket. He seemed to be having a great deal of fun, which was more than Will could say for himself.

 

On the second evening they found another hidden spot not far from the road, in a grove of tall pines. Rain fell after dark, but they were sheltered by the trees and were able to keep dry, for the most part. They huddled together under the canopy of branches, and spoke very little, which suited Will’s mood. He sat apart from Rowen, who gave him a puzzled look before they turned in for the night. 

 

Will woke up once in the dark to find that the rain had stopped. Shade sat beside him, wide awake, his ears cocked as though he was listening to something Will could not hear.

 

“What is it, Shade?” Will whispered.

 

“Listen,” the wolf said. Will held his breath. He could hear the soft, steady drip of raindrops falling from the needles of the pines.

 

“I have not heard that song for a very long time,” Shade said.

 

Will listened with him. He wondered if it was raining where his father was. That thought became a cold, hollow feeling that settled in his stomach and refused to fade.

 

“When I told my story,” Shade said after a long silence, “you said you already knew it. How can that be?”

 

“I don’t understand it either,” Will said. “Master Pendrake says that all the stories in my world come from here. But your story was … different when I heard it.”

 

“How was it different?”

         

“Well, you were different. You were … well, bad. You ate the little girl’s grandmother, and tried to eat the girl, too. If it was you.”

 

“I see. And what happened to me in that story?”

 

Will looked away from Shade’s calm, steady gaze.

 

“It was not a happy ending. For the wolf. So it couldn’t have been you.”

 

Shade nodded slowly.

 

“You may be right,” he said. “But my story isn’t over yet.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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